Before we went to Maui, we talked to a number of people who had been there before. Nearly everyone said, "You have to absolutely go to Mama's Fish House for dinner at some point." Everyone raved about how great the food was there. When we got to Maui, the consensus among the locals was that it was tough to beat Mama's Fish House for the best fish on the island. Even before our visit to Mama's, our expectations were high.
In the late 1950's, Floyd and Doris Christenson decided to turn in their staid life in San Diego for a sailing trip around Polynesia. For three years, the Christenson's lived in French Polynesia learning about island cuisines and how to prepare different types of fish that were caught by natives. It was in Polynesia where their daughter and son were born. And while they were in French Polynesia, Floyd Christenson landed a bit part in "Mutiny on the Bounty" starring Marlon Brando.
The family eventually moved to a home on the north shore of Maui. In 1973, the Christenson's bought an old nightclub on Ku'au Cove and renovated it into a restaurant. They leased the building to Hilda Costa who was the original "Mama". Costa ran the restaurant for three years before leaving the restaurant to the Christenson's.
The Christenson's eventually turned the restaurant into one of the best seafood restaurants - a favorite spot for tourists and celebrities, alike. Over the years, Mama's Fish House has hosted the likes of Frank Sinatra, Reba McEntire, Roger Clemens, Ann-Margret and a large number of performers and professional athletes. A number of autographed portraits of famous people who dined at Mama's Fish House were on the walls near the bar area of the place. Some of the regulars in Mama's Fish House are actors Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson who, we were told, have houses in the hills just up from the restaurant. (As an aside - Willie Nelson owns Charley's restaurant in Pa'ia and has a home not far from there.)
Today, Karen Christenson Marshall, Floyd and Doris' oldest child, runs the day-to-day operation of the restaurant. Doris and Floyd show up periodically and Doris loves to tell stories of the times they sailed around Polynesia.
Mama's Fish House only prepares freshly caught seafood at their restaurant. They contract fishermen in the area to catch a bounty of different types of Pacific Ocean fish. On the menu for that evening, they list the type of fish, who caught it and where it was caught. That's kind of a nice touch to recognize the fishermen who put in long hours to put the fish on the tables at Mama's.
Mama's decor is definitely island-themed with a Polynesian feel to the place. Mama's Fish House employs their own in-house designer, Bill Kohl, who continually updates the items in the place from the antique doors to the knick-knacks around the place.
The Christenson's have also bought up property around the original Mama's Fish House over the years and they now feature nine cottages for nightly rentals - all designed on the inside by Bill Kohl. The cottages feature a number of amenities and run between $175 and $595 a night. Four of the cottages are ocean front properties while the other five are called "garden cottages".
The head chef at Mama's Fish House is Perry Bateman (right). Bateman, in his early 40's, has been with the Christenson's since he was 19. He was never trained to be a chef, but picked up a lot of his skills on the job. He started out on the hot line in the kitchen, then worked his way up to sous chef. Bateman took over the kitchen at Mama's when he was 30 and has a good grasp of Hawaiian style cooking. Growing up, his family owned a restaurant on Maui - the only one that was serving true Hawaiian cuisine at the time. Bateman's knowledge of the ingredients that go into Hawaiian cuisine "is what makes Mama's work," Karen Christenson Marshall once said in an interview. One of Bateman's signature meals is an "Upcountry style" dish featuring fresh fish, tomato, avocado and caramelized onions grown on Maui. Bateman's - and Mama's - motto is "Quality before price".
It was on our way back from the Road to Hana on the Hana Highway on the north side of the island (see map) and we stopped in about 5:30 for an early dinner. Actually, we were pretty hungry because we had a big breakfast, but really nothing other some snacks on our trek to Hana and back. Plus, Cindy needed a drink after the drive back from Hana - something that she hardly ever asks for these days.
After leaving our car at the complimentary valet parking up front, we made our way around the ocean front side of the building to the hostess stand. Since it was relatively early when we got into Mama's Fish House, there was little to no wait to get a table. We were seated in an area near the bar, but nowhere close to the open windows that faced the ocean. That was sort of disappointing, but we sort of figured out a little later on as to why that may have been the case.
We were dressed rather casually - even casual for Hawaii. I was in a black "Iowa" t-shirt and shorts. Cindy was in an orange sleeveless top - stylish, but still pretty casual. We had always changed our shirts before we went out for the evening - me usually into a Hawaiian or button-down short sleeve shirt - and Cindy in a nice top. Since we were just coming back from Hana and had dressed down on purpose thinking that we'd stop and frolic in one of the many pools along the Road to Hana, we didn't want to go back all the way to the hotel, change clothes and then drive 23 miles back to Mama's Fish House.
We noticed similarly dressed people around us and when we both got up to go to the restroom at various points, we both noticed people who were more nattily dressed seated in the dining rooms with the open windows looking out to the tree-drenched beach and the ocean beyond. We just figured they wanted to keep the "riff-raff" in one area and put the classy folks in another. And as I always tell Cindy, the money coming from our jeans or shorts spends just as well as money that comes from a pair of wool or cotton slacks.
Our waitress came around to greet us and asked us if we wanted anything to drink right off the bat. Cindy laughed and said, "Mai tai!" I told her to make it two. When she brought them back, Cindy's eyes got pretty big. They were served in these large mugs and filled to the top. I was liking this place already.
The menu at Mama's Fish House was rather interesting with a mix of traditional Hawaiian food and fresh seafood. They had deep-sea caught ahi tuna, monchong caught off Kona, mahi mahi caught not far from Mama's off the north shore of Maui. They also had something called "lau lau" - mahi mahi, Pacific salmon, pork and lu'au leaf cooked in ti leaves, South Pacific style. That sounded rather interesting to say the least.
We started off ordering Mama's onaga ceviche appetizer. Ceviche is something we were introduced to in Mexico a number of years ago. They take chunks of freshly caught fish and is marinated in lime juice for up to 12 hours. The acid from the lime juice literally cooks the fish and the taste is - well, it's killer. And the onaga ceviche at Mama's goes a step further as they also marinate it with cilantro and chili pepper. It sounded just as good as it tasted. It was served with a chunk of avocado and fried banana slices. It was absolutely mind-blowing. We almost ordered another one.
A lady seated at a table near us was served something that looked absolutely scrumptious. Cindy couldn't keep her eyes off her plate. Cindy finally asked the woman, "I'm sorry, but what is that?"
The lady turned to Cindy and said, "It's the stuffed mahi mahi. And it is wonderful!"
And that's what Cindy ended up ordering. It's stuffed with lobster and crab meat along with sweet Maui onions. It's then rolled in a macadamia nut mixture and cooked to give it a nice light crust. Grilled asparagus spears and a rice pilaf came on the side with the stuffed fish. Cindy was hooked when it mentioned the macadamia nut crust. It was sort of expensive - about $40 bucks. But, hey we were on vacation.
I ordered the seared ahi tuna for my dinner. It's quickly grilled with a peppercorn/Hamakua mushroom sauce and served with a side of breadfruit-mashed potatoes.
We also ordered a bottle of white wine from Mama's interesting wine list. They featured a number of obscure wines - ones I was definitely not familiar with. And I have to say that I can't remember what kind of wine I ordered for our dinner although it was pretty good and went very well with our meal.
Our main meals came out and the presentation on the plates was exquisite. We were so hungry by this point we just dug in. I have to say my ahi tuna with the peppercorn/mushroom sauce was very good. I don't know if it was the best I've had, but the fish was very fresh and very tasty.
Cindy's stuffed mahi mahi was outstanding. We traded bites and we decided that even though the ahi tuna was very good, the stuffed mahi mahi was out of this world. The macadamia nut crust was light and didn't overpower the fish. But the lobster, crab and onion stuffing was a great taste combination with the mahi mahi. Cindy was literally in heaven.
Our waitress, who was very good in a laid back sort of way, came around to check on us. She asked how our meals were and I think Cindy and I both answered, "Great!" at the same time.
Of course, we had to have dessert after that fine meal. One thing that jumped out at me was the crème brulee made with lilikoi. I was addicted to anything that had lilikoi in it and I told Cindy I wanted to try one of those. Our waitress offered to bring us one of Mama's signature desserts - a homemade tropical fruit sorbet with ice cream - as a complimentary gesture. Cindy and I sort of looked at one another, shrugged our shoulders and said, "Sure!"
The crème brulee was just orgasmic. I don't know if I'd ever had a crème brulee that had such a forward citrus taste to it. We made very short work of the dessert. The fruit sorbet/ice cream dish was very good, as well. But it was nowhere as good as the crème brulee with lilikoi.
After we paid our bill (over $200 with a nice tip for the waitress - it wasn't cheap) we took a walk around the property so Cindy could get some pictures of flowers, Polynesian sculptures, tiki torches and a Hawaiian canoe that was planted on the beach. The wind was still coming in rather briskly off the ocean, but it wasn't as bad as it was earlier in the evening. With the sun setting behind the mountain that sits on Maui's north side, it was getting sort of dark under the abundance of palm trees that surrounded Mama's Fish House. It was sort of neat to be the deep shade with a lot of blue skies and fluffy clouds off in the distance.
Cindy also bought some of Mama's Hawaiian blend coffee beans that they sold at the outdoor hostess stand. I don't know if it was any different from the other Hawaiian coffee that she bought at other places, but she just was wanting some memento from Mama's Fish House.
We were overly thrilled with our visit to Mama's Fish House. We knew going in that our expectations could be too high given the glowing reports we'd received before our visit. But everything we heard from people stood up to the test and more. I really can't think of one thing I can bitch about Mama's Fish House. Oh, maybe I could bitch about the sudden downpour as we were waiting for our car. I felt bad to send the valet running out to get our car and bring it to the waiting area. Bad enough to give the soaking wet guy a $5 buck tip. But I later decided I should have only given him $2 bucks because the seat was wet from him dripping on it.
But that was it! Mama's Fish House is a great place to eat. Highly recommended by Cindy and I if you ever get to Maui.